NCAA is coming for Hugh Freeze, Ole Miss
Published 9:18 pm Wednesday, February 22, 2017
So Ole Miss’ long-awaited second Notice of Allegations as part of the NCAA’s investigation into the football program came Wednesday.
It wasn’t good.
Sprinkled throughout the words coming out of the mouth of athletic director Ross Bjork, who read through more damning charges brought on by college sports’ governing body while seated between Ole Miss Chancellor Jeffrey Vitter and head football coach Hugh Freeze during a 20-minute video released by the university, were some of the worst phrases a college football program can be associated with.
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Booster provided money.
Knowingly provided false or misleading information.
Violated head coach responsibility legislation.
Oh, and lack of institutional control. That’s the worst.
Ole Miss tried to be proactive and self-imposed a bowl ban for next season. If that’s the extent of the damage once the final verdict is handed down after Ole Miss takes its case before the Committee on Infractions this summer, Bjork and Freeze should take their luck to Vegas.
Because if it wasn’t clear before Wednesday, it’s crystal now: The NCAA is coming for Ole Miss and its head coach.
Freeze’s program now faces 21 charges, eight more than it did before Laremy Tunsil’s draft-night claim that he took money from an Ole Miss staffer. Yet none of the new charges are related to Tunsil’s apparent admission of guilt.
The NCAA apparently couldn’t corroborate that claim, so its investigators turned to other college players who were once recruited by Ole Miss to find the dirt they were looking for. The NCAA reportedly asked certain players at Mississippi State, Auburn and other SEC West teams who were recruited by Ole Miss to snitch on the Rebels with truthful accounts of their recruitment in exchange for immunity from possible sanctions.
Mississippi State linebacker Leo Lewis, who was committed to Ole Miss at one time, talked. So did Austin Golson, the former Ole Miss offensive lineman who transferred to Auburn after his freshman season, according to a report by RebelGrove.com. Think whatever you want about immunity — seeing how college athletics are universally dirty, I’m not a big fan of it — but it worked.
The NCAA found out more free lodging and transportation for recruits and those who accompanied them on visits were being arranged by one of Freeze’s former staffers (Ole Miss doesn’t refute this allegation), recruits were getting free meals and merchandise from the restaurants and stores of boosters (Ole Miss will contest these allegations) and, in the most serious recruiting allegation, that a former staff member — identified only as Former Staff Member A — arranged contact between two boosters and a certain recruit — identified as Prospective Student-Athlete B — between April 2014 and February 2015 and that the boosters gave him at least $13,000 in cash (Ole Miss doesn’t deny that the impermissible contact happened but is still determining whether it feels as though there’s enough evidence to support the alleged payments).
Ole Miss will get its day in court, but on the surface, it looks like boosters along with members of Freeze’s staff did whatever they wanted whenever they wanted. In other words, it has a rogue appearance.
So Freeze himself was hit with a Level I charge of failing to promote an atmosphere of compliance and failing to monitor his staff — two more phrases you’d rather not be associated with. Though Freeze hasn’t been named directly in any wrongdoing, NCAA rules no longer allow head coaches to plead ignorance when it comes to the actions of their assistants.
Ole Miss will fight the allegation against Freeze as well as the lack-of-institutional-control charge (also Level I), but it’s hard to envision a scenario where Freeze doesn’t pay a personal penalty. Head coaches can be suspended for up to a full season depending on the severity of the violations committed by his staff, and more than half of Ole Miss’ charges are Level I and Level II.
If you’re looking for the smallest speck of light in an otherwise dark day for Ole Miss, it’s that the NCAA’s near five-year colonoscopy is complete. The investigation is over, and the end, whatever it may be, is near.
But the NCAA is out for blood, and it’s going to try to squeeze every last drop that it can out of Freeze and his program before then.
Davis Potter is the Ole Miss beat writer and college sports editor for The EAGLE. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @DPotterOE.